McQueen serves as the master of his own fate in the original film. At the beginning of the story, Lightning McQueen is an up-and-coming rookie racer, sponsored by the Rust-Eze company. He is very skilled and focused on his goals, but also arrogant and self-centered. He hopes to be the first rookie to ever win the Piston Cup trophy, thereby gaining a lucrative endorsement deal from Dinoco Oil. During the big race, McQueen gains a substantial lead by neglecting several pit stops, but pays for his arrogance when he blows out his tires at the very end of the final lap. Forced to limp across the finish line, he ends up in a three-way tie for first, along with the aggressive perennial runner-up Chick Hicks and the celebrated racing veteran Strip “The King” Weathers.
En route to California for a tie-breaker race, he is detoured onto U.S. Route 66 because of The Delinquent Road Hazards and finds himself in Radiator Springs, a once-vibrant town which saw its livelihood largely disappear upon being bypassed by Interstate 40 years ago, leaving only a handful of businesses and no local traffic. McQueen accidentally destroys the town’s main street while fleeing from the local sheriff (he mistook the old cruiser’s backfiring for gunshots). The town’s judge sentences McQueen to repair the road before he may continue to Los Angeles, where the 3-way tie-breaker race is being held.
In Radiator Springs, Lightning adopts this 1956-57 Corvette two-tone color scheme. Over the course of his stay in the town, he comes to form friendships with the residents of the town. He falls in love with a former city-dwelling attorney named Sally and gains a deep respect and reverence for the town’s judge and doctor, an ex-race car named Doc Hudson. These experiences lead McQueen to understand the importance of friendship and love, and that fame is not the most important thing in life. Soon after realizing this, he is found by his crew and the media and taken to Los Angeles for the big race.
It is established (while initially en route to California and when driving with Sally to the Wheel Well Motel) that not only did McQueen not have any close friends but also secretly found his life unhappy. When Sally told McQueen the reason for leaving her lifestyle as an attorney, being that she wasn’t happy, McQueen began to agree but immediately puts on a surprised emotion to hide it.
As the tie-breaker race begins, McQueen’s thoughts keep drifting back to Radiator Springs, distracting him from the competition. However, he is surprised to discover that his new friends have come along to serve as his pit crew with Doc – once again outfitted in his old racing colors – serving as McQueen’s new crew chief. Heartened by their presence and recalling the tricks they taught him, McQueen is able to counteract Chick Hicks’ dirty driving tactics and take the lead of the race. McQueen manages to make it to the finish line before Chick and The King, but after seeing The King being deliberately spun out of control by Chick, and remembering the crash that had ended Doc’s career, McQueen stops before the finish line to help the long-time racer.
As Chick Hicks triumphantly crosses the finish line in first place, McQueen helps push The King to the end, allowing him to complete his last race and retire with dignity, much to the crowd’s pleasure. Although the King reminds him that he just gave up the Piston Cup, Lightning recalls Doc’s statement earlier in the film: “It’s just an empty cup.” McQueen gains a large measure of respect from the public for his act of sportsmanship, while Chick is booed and jeered by the crowd for his reckless cheating. McQueen is offered the Dinoco sponsorship by Tex (a longtime King #43 fan and the owner of Dinoco Oil) but turns it down, saying that he would rather stay with the Rust-Eze team that brought him this far. McQueen returns to Radiator Springs and decides to move his team’s headquarters there, helping to revitalize the town and its businesses. The movie ends with Lightning and Sally racing to Flo’s and Mater flying on a Dinoco helicopter (as Lightning had promised him earlier in the movie).